Natural Born Heroes: The lost secrets of strength and endurance

An interesting new perspective on SOE, the kidnap, why the SOE guys and gals were able to cope with the hardships of their particular kind of warfare, and how it may help us all live healthier lives. Well that appears to be the claim which we could take with a pinch of apparently unhealthy salt! A review of Natural Born Heroes: The lost secrets of strength and endurance
by Chrisopher McDougall.

by Chris Maume

First published in the Independent, 9 April 2015.

One of the most daring, madcap episodes of the Second World War was the kidnapping by Patrick Leigh Fermor, dirty trickster supreme, and his band of British eccentrics and Cretan hard men, of the German general Heinrich Kreipe.

Seventy years later, youngsters in inner-city London and the suburbs of Paris were becoming experts in parkour, using the urban landscape as an obstacle course to be negotiated with joyful freedom and intense physical discipline.

Christopher McDougall connects these two points, and many in between, in a heady confection that encompasses, among other subjects, military history, archaeology, Greek mythology, neat ways to kill a man and ideas on health and fitness that might just change your life. A line from an old M People song kept coming to mind as I read on, the one about searching for the hero inside yourself.

The Kreipe caper involved an insane trek across the murderous Cretan terrain, which by then should already have done for the motley crew of poets and classicists who had been tasked with detaining on the island German soldiers who would otherwise have been marching on Stalingrad. Had they failed, the progress of the war may have been very different, as Winston Churchill would later acknowledge.

Few of the Special Operations Executive men who joined Leigh Fermor in the Mediterranean could be described as hero material, however: they tended to be, like him, romantic misfits, many of whom might not even have got into the regular army. They proceeded by brain-power and imagination, but on the rugged island of Crete they also needed to hack it physically. And McDougall thinks he knows how they did that.

“The art of the hero,” he contends, is the art of natural movement,” and his answer to the question of how the Cretan mob were able to achieve so much boils down to two basic strands: one is the idea that true physical strength comes not from muscle power but from the fascia profunda, the net of fibres that envelopes our bones and muscles and imparts the energy of “elastic recoil” that allowed us to spring across the savannah in pursuit of lunch, as well as chuck the rocks or unleash the slingshot that killed the lunch for us.

Learn to use your fascia profunda, says McDougall, and you’ll find yourself able to do things you never thought possible. The Cretans, skipping across peaks and valleys like mountain goats, do it naturally, and the SOE boys, he says, learned from them.

The other ancient secret which Leigh Fermor and Co unwittingly accessed, according to McDougall, was the idea of using fat, rather than sugar, as fuel. The fatty-meat, low-carb diet which sustained our hunter-gatherer ancestors until agriculture came along and spoiled everything, has resurfaced from time to time (remember the Atkins diet?), and McDougall believes it’s the way to go.

Cut out those grains, all that pasta and anything remotely sugary, and get some flesh inside you, he recommends. Do that while preventing your heart rate exceeding a certain mark (for which there’s a simple formula) and soon you’ll be lean, lithe and fighting fit. The guru of carbo-loading for distance runners, Dr Tim Noakes, he reminds us, eventually recanted – and, McDougall notes, the SOE boys and their local comrades could cross the mountains on little more than a few nuts and a drop of wine.

He constructs a fascinating edifice of ideas around these two notions, and eventually finds a modern-day hero of his own. But the pleasures of the book are as much to do with the fascinating panoply of characters, war heroes all, British, Commonwealth and Cretan, whose exploits contributed so much to Hitler’s downfall.

Buy Natural Born Heroes: The lost secrets of strength and endurance

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7 thoughts on “Natural Born Heroes: The lost secrets of strength and endurance

  1. Christos Paganakis

    Sad mixture of weak knowledge of history and silly nutritiono-bunkum .

    The German’s march towards Stalingrad took place during 1942 , with the battle in the city at the end of the year , and the Soviet counter-offensive there during the winter 1942-43 .
    The last German major offensive in the East ( battle of Kursk ) was lost in mid-1943 , and in April 1944 ( date of the Kreipe kidnap ) the German army in the East was about to be subjected to the huge Soviet offensive Operation Bagration , which would drive the Axis right out of Russia , before the Red Army Spring offensive of 1945 ended things .
    From the Spring of 1943 the only Germans marching toward Stalingrad were PoWs .

    And the single German infantry division , which was Kreipe’s command , and which merely formed the strongest element in the complex mixture of units of all the arms of the German military which made up the Garrison of Crete , would have A ) made no damn difference to the outcome of the Russian campaign whatever , ( where hundreds of divisions where employed on each side ) , and B ) were in Crete to help hold it as an ” Unsinkable aircraft carrier ” against the allies in North Africa and the Middle East , and to keep the sea route to the far east via the eastern Med and the Suez canal firmly closed , forcing all shipping from Europe to the Far East to have to use the long route around Africa , until nearly the end of the war .

    I didn’t get where I am today by learning to use my Fascia Profunda .
    Nor did the SOE , nor their Andarte colleagues . Fit young men in the prime of life on sparse diets , and the leavening of older cretan mountain men , also mostly rake-thin , on their home turf , and fairly lightly laden , are of course going to be able to move swiftly over rugged terrain . because they had high strength to body-mass ratios .
    Simple as that .
    Add self-confidence and patriotic fervour to that , plus plenty of Nerve ( as opposed to simple raw courage ) and the recipe is complete .
    And two brimming tumblers of Raki swallowed straight down for breakfast each morning helps to kick-start your day of course .

    Reply
  2. John Chapman

    Utter piffle. What else is there to eat in the Cretan Mountains? Ring up the local takeaway for moussaka and chips for twenty? And how did Kreipe manage? Clearly he was a quick learner. ” chauffeur driven Merc? Ach nein danke. For me just a greasy goat chop sprinkled mit Das S.O.E. Secret Mischung of 14 herbs and spices.

    Reply
  3. Paul Kelly

    “…..little more than a few nuts and a drop of wine”…. sounds like my local on a Sunday!!! There is some truth in these words; Xan Fielding’s books: “The Stronghold” and “Hide and Seek”, bare testament to this diet. It seemed to work and brought out the heroic nature of these men and women.

    Reply
  4. Tim Todd

    Thanks Jackie

    Always good to hear of Crete related material. The author is an amazing chap, have spent time with him in Crete. Kind of you to take time out to send link when so much is going on.

    Best wishes

    Tim

    >

    Reply

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